Tharoor Line | Parliamentary standing committees: Govt must explain why democratic norms dumped?

One of the highlights of the committee experience is its non-partisan nature. File photo: PTI

At a time when our parliament -- beset by disruptions, adjournments, and a government that enjoys pushing its bills through with minimal discussion -- seems increasingly dysfunctional, the Departmentally Related Standing Committees are an honourable exception.

It is in these 24 committees – eight of which are chaired by the Opposition – that grandstanding and disruption normally have no place, the cameras are banned, and detailed, constructive and candid discussion takes place. Much of the ''real work” of parliament is done in these bodies, behind closed doors, with witnesses summoned for testimony and examination, frank questions posed, and eventually, consensus reached on most issues, usually in amicable fashion.

I have had the privilege of chairing two such committees – on External Affairs from 2014-2019 and on Communications and Information Technology since 2019 – and I have no hesitation in saying that the experience marks the highlight of my parliamentary career. The collegial environment, the in-depth consideration of issues and the ability to hold the government accountable, are all important hallmarks of the work of these bodies.

One of the highlights of the committee experience is its non-partisan nature. Which is why I was dismayed when, in a departure from existing conventions, which have been honoured by successive governments irrespective of which party is in power, the government unilaterally conveyed its decision to withdraw the allocation of the role of chairperson of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology from the Indian National Congress and give it to the BJP — the principal effect of which was to remove me from the chairmanship.

This was so clearly prompted by a desire to bring the committee’s leadership under the government’s control and take it away from a chairman who asked inconvenient questions, that it led five of my colleagues, from five different parties, to write in protest to the Speaker, but to no avail. I was touched by their demonstration of regard and support, and by the faith that they showed in me, but to the best of my knowledge they have not even received a reply so far.

The government unilaterally conveyed its decision to withdraw the allocation of the role of chairperson of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology from the Indian National Congress and give it to the BJP.

Shashi Tharoor

Beyond the question of my own chairmanship, however, the government’s action is deeply troubling for a number of reasons. While, for a similar decision in the Rajya Sabha (to strip Congress of the chairmanship of the Home Affairs Committee), the marginally reduced Congress numbers in the Rajya Sabha was the reason cited by the government, there has been no such change in the Lok Sabha. In fact the Congress’ strength in the Lower House has gone up by one MP since the chairmanship was originally allotted. This raises ominous questions about the real intent behind such a decision, and the complete lack of even an attempt at justification. At the same time, under existing conventions, it is extremely unusual that the chairpersonship of a committee has been changed in the middle of the 17th Lok Sabha. The allocation of committees has normally been determined at the start of the convening of a fresh Lok Sabha and, except for special circumstances, has remained in accordance with the formula decided till such time as it is dissolved. There are no unusual circumstances in this case and the IT Committee has been one of the more active and well-regarded Standing Committees in our Parliament.

The floor leader of the Congress Party in the Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chaudhury, strongly protested this as marking yet another instance of this government's scant regard for parliamentary convention — as well as the well-established principles of consultative deliberation and legislative oversight that are the bedrock of any parliamentary democracy. We had already witnessed a similar episode when the chairmanship of the Parliamentary Committee on External Affairs, which had always, till the 17th Lok Sabha, been allocated to an Opposition party member (including the likes of later-PMs Vajpayee and Gujral), was, instead, given to a member of the ruling party. Though the Congress and I personally were again the affected parties, we took it in good grace, but as Chaudhury wrote, we cannot repeatedly be diminished in this manner. There is no extenuating reason for this repeated attempt to dilute the role of the principal Opposition party in the Lok Sabha.

Photo: PTI

The government must understand that both the principle of deliberation and consultation, as well as conventions that encourage bipartisan cooperation within the functioning of critical bodies like the Standing Committees, must be honoured. We are all interested in seeing the parliamentary committee system function well and in the interests of all. The manner in which we have been informed of such a decision is an act of disrespect on the government’s part for the principal Opposition party. The government is reducing Parliamentary Committees to a farce if they are unprepared to deal with a committee Chair doing his work seriously and professionally, and a committee serving as an independent voice expressing views that may not always be to the taste of the government of the day.

In light of these grave concerns, the Prime Minister and the Speaker owe it to the nation to reconsider and reverse this ill-thought-out decision — or at the very least to explain why such arbitrary behaviour can, in their terms, be justified as consistent with the norms of our parliamentary democracy.

Booze lesson from Kerala for Japan

We in Kerala are constantly having to bear the brunt of being satirised for our excessive alcohol consumption and the state government’s reliance on excise duties from alcohol sales. Japan, on the other hand, sems to have the opposite problem. Officials of the nation’s tax agency are concerned about changing demographics and a dramatic decline in tax revenue from alcohol. Average alcohol consumption in Japan used to be over 100 litres per person in the mid-1990s, but has fallen by 33% since. Their solution is to revive Japan’s drinking culture by running a contest, “Sake Viva!”, for 20-to-39 year-olds, encouraging young Japanese to drink more booze. Needless to say, the taxmen are facing a backlash in a country where nearly 30% of people in their 20s don’t drink alcohol at all, and another 26.5 percent “rarely” drink. But taxwallahs everyone around the world are the same: they care less about health or social well-bring than about raising their revenues. Maybe they should send a study team to Kerala to see how Japan can learn from us!

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